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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

DECATUR — “Lab school” meant something very different in 1970, when Centennial Laboratory School became a magnet school.

It contained two programs, “open environment” and “structured environment.” The “structured” program was much like any other elementary school, with self-contained classrooms and curriculum. The “open” program, also called “spontaneous learning,” was multi-age, individualized instruction, independent study, flexible curricula, based on students' interests, with student self-evaluation. Teachers were instead called consultants, observers, counselors, evaluators and prescribers of learning.

The program moved to Johns Hill in 1986 and has become a fine arts-focused magnet school, while Centennial, which was at 1500 E. Condit St., is long since closed.

A look at the names that grace 21 Decatur public school buildings is to stroll through the past, honoring the names of those who had a lasting impact on our lives, nationally and locally. 

Many current and former school buildings were named for presidents, generals, local politicians and, of course, naval hero and city namesake Stephen Decatur. Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (also a president) and Gen. Douglas MacArthur are among them. Benjamin Franklin and Adlai Stevenson have a place. Pershing Early Learning Center is on Pershing Road (Gen. John J. Pershing).

Pershing Early Learning Center

Students Oliver Whitfield, left, and Clayton Larck play together during a center time in a preschool class at Pershing Early Learning Center.

Johns Hill is in the neighborhood and on the grounds of the Johns family of Decatur's early history. Oak Grove and South Shores are named for their neighborhoods, and Hope Academy for the Hope VI Program to revitalize public housing which helped pay for the school and the Wabash Crossing neighborhood.

Behind the names of other buildings, there are stories of local history and people whose memories mean something to Decatur, but who might not be known of elsewhere.

"Lab school" today is a term applied to Dennis School on West Main Street. The school was named for Andrew Dennis, who came from Pennsylvania to Macon County in 1852, becoming a successful farmer and businessman. Dennis Lab School collaborates with Millikin University on a variety of activities that benefit the school and the education program students at Millikin.

Baum School

In this Dec. 8, 2017 file photo, sixth grader Zion Tally checks out his new Team Emily T-shirt at Baum School. The sale of the shirts were part of a fundraiser to support fellow student Emily Short as she fights cancer.

Baum School was named for Michael E. Baum, who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1970 at age 22. The building's name was chosen by lot from the names of former Decatur students who had died in that war, and a large picture of Michael Baum hangs in the entryway of the school. The dedication of the building was November 1975, with Baum's parents and grandmother in attendance.

Robert Patterson, who was principal of the building that year, told the 600 people at the ceremony that the building would be a lasting memorial to the young soldier.

Durfee Magnet School

Durfee Magnet School is named for H.B. Durfee, an early educational leader in the community who taught and served on the board of education. The building originally named Durfee sits at East Grand Avenue and North Jasper Street, on land once owned by George and Samuel Powers, settlers who came to Illinois from Alabama. The land was purchased for $1,252 from Caroline Powers and the first school built in 1892.

The Durfee program and name moved to 1000 W. Grand Ave., and the building that was once Durfee is now owned by Faith Fellowship Christian Church. The school chose to take the name to its new home.

French Academy

French Academy


Named after: 

French Academy, formerly known as Mary W. French School, was named in honor of a teacher who had worked for 42 years in the community. French died in 1933 at 86, but she was present for the dedication of the building named for her. The original school was built in 1863 at West Wood and South College streets and named Third Ward School, but due to overcrowding was moved to its present location at West Wood and South Monroe streets in 1914.

Enterprise School, which is now in the process of becoming an all-Montessori program, was a rural school in 1911 and hosted a temperance contest. Half the proceeds went to purchase books for the school library and the other half to the Women's Christian Temperance Union, an anti-alcohol organization.

The once one-room country school was apparently named Enterprise to indicate the ambitious spirit of the people in the area who wanted their own school:

“The Enterprise School is all that its name suggests and the teachers have for the last few years been upholding the standard,” read a story in the Decatur Herald on May 17, 1902, as the school held a picnic for students and their families to celebrate the end of the school year.

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter


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